Breed­ing grounds for ter­ror

Euro­pean na­tions un­pre­pared for ris­ing lure of rad­i­cal­iza­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics -

BRUS­SELS ain and con­fu­sion mix on Geral­dine’s tear-stained face as she re­counts how her son Anis, an 18-yearold who grew up half-Bel­gian and half-Moroc­can in one of this city’s no­to­ri­ous Mus­lim en­claves, went off to Syria and died fight­ing with the Is­lamic State group.

But the mother’s sor­row turns quickly to anger when she re­veals that the ji­hadi re­cruiter who lured her son into the ter­ror­ist group’s grip is still op­er­at­ing freely in Bel­gium.

“The re­cruiter was the son of an imam,” said Geral­dine, who re­quested that her last name not be re­vealed. “In June, I told the po­lice. They told me not to say his name pub­licly. They said he’s been in­ter­viewed and they are re­open­ing the case.”

The an­guished mother’s predica­ment stabs at the heart of the Is­lamic State cri­sis in Europe. Po­lit­i­cal and law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties across the Con­ti­nent are strug­gling to con­front the depth of the ter­ror­ist group’s re­cruit­ing hooks in dis­af­fected Mus­lim en­claves.

On the front lines are Paris and Brus­sels, where first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion North Africans ac­count for 15 per­cent and 26 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, re­spec­tively. Au­thor­i­ties in both cap­i­tals have faced no shortage of crit­i­cism for fail­ing to in­te­grate Mus­lim res­i­dents into the so­ci­etal fab­ric, re­sult­ing in a co­hort of dis­en­fran­chised young men who are wor­ry­ingly open to a mes­sage of rad­i­cal­ism.

Along with that temp­ta­tion is the Euro­pean Union’s wider prob­lem of a se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus that is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Fight­ers re­turn home from Syria and Iraq with an eye to­ward slid­ing eas­ily across Europe’s por­ous bor­ders and re­cruit­ing an­other gen­er­a­tion of fol­low­ers to carry out vi­o­lent ji­had without leav­ing their lo­cal neigh­bor­hoods.

Un­der­funded, un­co­or­di­nated and poorly trained po­lice in sev­eral na­tions, cou­pled with the lack of a strong cen­tral coun­tert­er­ror­ism sys­tem and the out­right fail­ure of EU mem­ber states to share ba­sic data on sus­pected ter­ror­ists and re­cruiters, fuel a sit­u­a­tion that Amer­i­can of­fi­cials say is only get­ting worse.

“I don’t like say­ing it, but there’s no ques­tion Europe’s go­ing to get hit by more at­tacks,” said one U.S. law­maker, who has held high-level meet­ings with in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials from sev­eral Euro­pean na­tions dur­ing re­cent months.

The law­maker spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity with The Wash­ing­ton Times early this sum­mer — dur­ing the ini­tial re­port­ing for this spe­cial se­ries of ar­ti­cles ex­am­in­ing hot spots in the war against ter­ror­ism that Pres­i­dent Obama and al­lied lead­ers have yet to con­trol, a war that will be handed over as the for­eign pol­icy pri­or­ity for who­ever wins the pres­i­dency in Novem­ber.

The U.S. law­maker’s grim warn­ing came to pass in shock­ing fash­ion in mid-July, when an Is­lamic State-in­spired at­tacker of Tu­nisian de­scent mowed down crowds of Bastille

PDay rev­el­ers with a truck in the French city of Nice. Eighty-five peo­ple died. Ten were chil­dren and teenagers. A third of the vic­tims were Mus­lim. The Is­lamic State quickly claimed credit, say­ing its “sol­diers” were also re­spon­si­ble for a wave of smaller but no less grisly in­ci­dents that fol­lowed: a train at­tack by an ax-wield­ing 17-year-old Afghan boy in Ger­many; a sui­cide bomb­ing by a 27-year-old Syr­ian asy­lum seeker, also in Ger­many; and an as­sault by two French teens of Al­ge­rian de­scent who video­taped them­selves slit­ting the throat of an 86-year-old Catholic priest in Nor­mandy.

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say it’s un­clear whether the tac­tics mark a de­fin­i­tive shift to less-so­phis­ti­cated “lone-wolf” at­tacks, but Euro­peans have re­mained on edge for months in the wake of bru­tal as­saults in Paris and on the Brus­sels air­port and sub­way.

Euro­pean na­tions have strug­gled to de­ploy ad­e­quate re­sources to con­front the ris­ing threat.

France has kept 10,000 mil­i­tary troops de­ployed around its in­te­rior since Novem­ber’s street at­tacks, and po­lice have car­ried out more than 4,000, of­ten chaotic, raids on sus­pected ji­hadi hide­outs. Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande has au­tho­rized the searches of homes without war­rants un­der a state of emer­gency de­cree.

Brus­sels au­thor­i­ties say the alert level is just as high, with 134 ter­ror­ism-re­lated ar­rests dur­ing the first five months of the year, a nearly 25 per­cent in­crease over last year.

Po­lice are also quick to tout how the na­tion’s politi­cians, no­to­ri­ously riven by Dutch-French eth­nic and lan­guage di­vides, re­sponded to the Brus­sels at­tacks in un­prece­dented fash­ion by push­ing through long-de­layed leg­is­la­tion to al­low coun­tert­er­ror­ism raids at night.

The ab­sence of such raids out­raged Amer­i­can and British in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, who were at­tempt­ing to ad­vise Bel­gians on in­ter­nal se­cu­rity.

“It used to be for­bid­den to do home searches be­tween 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” Fed­eral Po­lice spokesman Peter De Waele told The Times. “The ter­ror­ists knew they could do what­ever they wanted after 9 p.m. Now we can give them the feel­ing that they’re never safe.”

Crit­ics say the French and Bel­gian coun­tert­er­ror­ism re­sponses still fall short.

“Be­tween the two na­tions, it’s not been any­where near as good as it could be and it’s clear in both that coun­tert­er­ror­ism in­tel­li­gence is too frag­mented and needs to be more ag­gre­gated,” said Nigel Inkster, a for­mer high-level of­fi­cial of MI6, the British for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

Mr. Inkster, now an an­a­lyst with the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said Bel­gian po­lice in par­tic­u­lar have sim­ply failed to en­gage with the na­tion’s large and grow­ing Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion from North Africa, even though the Mus­lim en­claves have been there for more than a gen­er­a­tion. “I’m not sure the Bel­gian se­cu­rity ser­vices have a sin­gle Ara­bic speaker on their books,” he said.

Bel­gium has strug­gled to track ji­hadi re­cruiters in ar­eas such as Molen­beek St. Jean. At least three of the men who car­ried out the Paris at­tacks in Novem­ber grew up and still lived in the heav­ily Mus­lim en­clave.

Molen­beek is home to some 95,000 peo­ple, and lo­cal of­fi­cials say it has at least 24 mosques. Each of those mosques has three or four imams, many of whom are known to in­ter­act only in Ara­bic.

Although most of the imams have joined a cam­paign to re­ject ex­trem­ism and the lure of the Is­lamic State, lo­cal of­fi­cials in Molen­beek say elu­sive net­works of ji­hadi re­cruiters linger on the pe­riph­ery of sev­eral of the mosques.

‘Ji­hadi Su­per­high­way’

When Geral­dine spoke of her son’s fa­tal in­volve­ment with the Is­lamic State over the sum­mer, she did so from a dis­creet lo­ca­tion in Molen­beek.

For years, Molen­beek was a flash­point on the “Ji­hadi Su­per­high­way,” through which at least 3,000 young men have trav­eled from Western Europe to the Mid­dle East.

Most of the re­cruits flew com­mer­cially right out of ma­jor EU air­ports to Turkey be­fore climb­ing into Is­lamic State cars for the trip to the group’s “caliphate” across the bor­der in Syria and Iraq. That was the path Geral­dine’s son Anis took in Jan­uary 2014.

Although he grew up with lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for the re­li­gion, he sud­denly be­came in­fat­u­ated with Is­lam, his mother re­called. “The rad­i­cal­iza­tion of my son took four months,” said Geral­dine, who con­verted to Is­lam her­self in the early 1990s when she met and fell in love with her hus­band, a Bel­gian man of Moroc­can de­scent.

The cou­ple thought lit­tle of it when their son “sud­denly started pray­ing more,” said Geral­dine, who wore a mod­est blue Is­lamic-style blouse and no head­scarf when she spoke with The Times in July. “He went from be­ing a kid who wouldn’t get up in the morn­ing to pray or to go to mosque, to pray­ing a lot and then sud­denly speak­ing about Pales­tine.”

She be­lieved it was all part of her son’s grow­ing-up and that the best thing would be to talk to him about it. “But then he came in one day say­ing, ‘Do you see [Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad] killing peo­ple and no­body is do­ing any­thing about it? I must go and help those peo­ple. It is my role,’” Geral­dine said. “The last signal was that he be­gan speak­ing about the Ko­ran and ar­gu­ing with us about it. He was fo­cused on some sen­tences that said you can make ji­had, and he was say­ing, ‘See, this jus­ti­fies killing and ji­had and you must help suf­fer­ing peo­ple.’” Anis dis­ap­peared soon af­ter­ward. Geral­dine was sure he had left for Syria, so she went to the po­lice to re­port his name and ask that he be pre­vented from board­ing a flight out of Bel­gium. She said po­lice de­clined her re­quest be­cause Anis had turned 18.

Then came an the anony­mous call. A voice told Geral­dine that her son was in Turkey and would soon go to Syria. If she wanted to speak with him, she would have to call back in three hours. So be­gan a se­ries of painful Skype calls, over the course of which Anis told his mother that he was in Syria to “help refugees.” Through tears, she be­lieved him. At first, Geral­dine said, she be­lieved her son was in Aleppo, but then she dis­cov­ered he was in Raqqa. The Is­lamic State de­clared the Syr­ian city the cap­i­tal of its caliphate the very month Anis left Brus­sels.

All she had was his word for more than a year, un­til Fe­bru­ary 2015, when she re­ceived a mes­sage on her phone that said: “Are you the mother of Anis? You must be proud. He is a lion.”

The mes­sage said Anis was killed by an Amer­i­can airstrike while guard­ing the air­port at Deir el-Zour, an Is­lamic State­con­trolled city south­east of Raqqa.

“My son is dead, and the re­cruiter is still alive?” Geral­dine asked in­cred­u­lously. “We must stop him be­cause I’m sure he’s still talk­ing to other young peo­ple and in­doc­tri­nat­ing them.”

Bel­gian Fed­eral Po­lice spokesman Peter De Waele de­clined to com­ment but said it “is pos­si­ble” that po­lice are watch­ing sus­pected ji­hadi re­cruiters.


Bel­gian po­lice raided Brus­sels’ Molen­beek neigh­bor­hood in March after the deadly ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris. At least three of the ter­ror­ists grew up and still lived in the heav­ily Mus­lim en­clave. Bel­gium has strug­gled to track ji­hadi re­cruiters in the area.

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